Imagining Decentralized Videogame Culture: Easy Game Development

leeroy lewin

“Just make it and you’ll find out,” is simultaneously a cop out and the enduring advice I’ll give to someone who’s interested in making games.
Game making is hard… or so I hear. But you know, creative work is hard! Working with a sieve for your own soul and guts. Art technique and knowledge is, for most part, learned, it’s not laying around dormant in your body. Game making is creative work (isn’t it?). So, yeah, it’s going to be difficult. For me, it can be hard getting out of the bed, facing the day. To situate this in the context of explicit global crisis, well, I’d say everyone is having a harder time living.
“Games are hard to make,” has become a slogan for the industry. Have game developers done anything else besides game making? I’m sure y’all do, I hope it’s clear that my pile of rhetorical devices isn’t coming from condescension. What I mean to say is that game developers put a premium on the difficulty of making games, over the difficulty of many other things that do and don’t facilitate making games. Sure, trying to make a specific game, in a specific way, is going to be difficult. Coordinating teams of people and meeting deadlines is difficult. Also, obnoxiously speaking, unnecessary. (Try imagining a world without deadlines!)
If game making is hard, it’s because we’ve made it hard. Similarly, it can be hard to face the day. Not because I hold any contempt for life, but because I’m expected to do things slightly beyond my ability, slightly beyond my comfort zone, again and again. This is valorized as expected and a good thing. It’s considered more healthy to hold a high stress job and live with panic attacks, than to eliminate those problems and lead a more healthy life. The world wouldn’t burn if I didn’t have to work a 40 hour week every week (and maybe, it’s literally burning because of this surplus value). But it’s “the only way”—this work ethic is basically moral within American society. Work to death! A literal proposition as seen throughout the ages, and more recently, to be sure.
Lack of support or legitimacy from peers, compounded with significant abuse, makes the industrial process of commercial game making (aka within teams attempting to be coordinated as line work) seen as “the only way” purely from a sense of distribution. Sure, there are authorial, or creative, developers that become successful every once in a while [incredible that XYZ was made by one person with their mortgaged house and 10 years of development] which people use to point out some sort of diversity of practice in commercial games. But everyone knows these developers are outliers and these outliers are still generally compelled to practice game making would have benefited from access to industrial processes. That lack of access they pay with their wellbeing (in other words, spending 5+ years to make a long polished game).
When we say “game making is hard” I think what is being said is 1. The industrial processes within large teams have workloads that are too large for the timeframe or labor pool, complicated alongside many points of failure and 2. Trying to replicate those industrial processes as a solo developer or small team requires incredible discipline, expertise, and/or personal sacrifice.
Still, peers I love will also say game making is hard—hell sometimes I will say game making is hard—when we’re talking about a kind of game making that’s entirely different from line work. Maybe we shouldn’t do their propaganda work for them! The existence of difficult game making still yet implies a game making that’s easy, or at least isn’t difficult. Is the kind of game making pursued freely, for self or peer enrichment, without significant external pressures, really something that’s “hard”? I don’t think that’s difficulty, that’s liberation!
This is not to minimize the difficulties of creative work. When I say game making is hard, what I mean is: it’s hard to stay motivated, either because of the pressures of life and making a living, or the demoralizing presence of a monolithic games scene that believes game making should be hard. It’s hard to pursue creative work, when lots of other things and distractions will shortcut toward me feeling good, or even feeling as if I was doing creative work (even though I am not). It’s hard to imagine creative work when I have difficulty imagining a future, in the moment. It’s hard just to meet my own personal standards sometimes, and it’s just as hard to adjust those standards in ways that feel satisfying, in ways that are realistic to be met. It can be hard finding a community or an overarching reason to do creative work, one that feels like it’s interfacing with the rest of the world, instead of retreating from it.
These difficulties are not exclusive to game making! They’re kind of just generalistic anxieties that come with being a person, tailored to game making… though such a pedantic clarification is a pretty unfair delineation, because the point of localized language within communities is to kind of box up and overcome these anxieties through specification. Still, I will be unfair! The inability to make a game or work on a game is nothing to be ashamed of, but at the same time, I want to cognizantly argue that game making really isn’t difficult!
When I say game making is easy, I also mean that an infinite number of expressions that game making enables are pretty easy to do when the veneer of professionalism is abandoned. One of the greater lies of late capitalism is this idea that people need to be professional or “good at” something to participate. It’s fucking bullshit! Who benefits from there being a special class of trained performers and means tested artists? Artists might think they benefit, but this false solidarity is shown in our landscape, with the arts being treated as a playground for rich heirs and commodified by corporate landlordism.
It’s okay to just make things. Make things for your friends, or for a close collaborator. Make things for yourself. It’s a fast way to feel better! More than that, or how “feeling better” is accomplished, is by feeling connected to a history of culture, community, and practice. A satisfying way to channel that excess existential energy that I find gnaws at the back of my mind. Fuck the need to be productive! This is not what I’m advocating. I am advocating for connection, a way to contribute to a larger whole, a way to use creative imagination to transform what we’re allowed to do and see within oppressive societies.
I liked making the games. I hope you liked playing the games. I would advise anyone who is bored or unhappy and has access to a computer to start making regular little games, too.
Stephen “thecatamites” Murphy, GAME NOTES
That’s why I’m devoted to improvisational, spontaneous music. And I think that’s what we need on the planet right now. I think people have to get deeper inside themselves. We all have the potential to be smart and intelligent, and we’ve got to bring it out of people. To resolve some of these major problems we have on the planet, we have to have more people working.
Milford Graves, Sounding the Universe
published on 02/17/2021